A 76-count indictment charged four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a related company with numerous charges relating to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products. Three of the officials have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Two of these officials and a fourth person were also charged with obstruction of justice.
Contemporaneously, an information filed against a fifth person was also unsealed. On the same day that charges against this person were filed, he pleaded guilty to that information, which charged him with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
The investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the FDA and CDC traced a national outbreak of salmonella to a PCA plant as the likely source. As alleged in the indictment, this plant was a peanut roasting facility where PCA roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut paste. PCA sold these peanut products to its customers around the country.
The documents charge that the four defendants participated in a scheme to manufacture and ship salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, and in so doing misled PCA customers. As alleged in the indictment, those customers ranged in size from small, family-owned businesses to global, multibillion-dollar food companies.
“When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk,” said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Although PCA is now no longer in business, the allegations against each of the defendants arise from his or her conduct while at PCA and a related company. The following allegations are set forth in the indictment: the first defendant was an owner and president of PCA; the second defendant, who worked at P.P. Sales, was a food broker who worked on behalf of PCA; the third defendant was the operations manager at the plant from on or about July 2008 through February 2009; and the fourth defendant held various positions at the plant – receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager – from on or about April 2002 through February 2009. As charged in the information, the fifth person served as operations manager of the PCA plant from on or about June 2002 through May 2008.
“We all place a great deal of trust in the companies and individuals who prepare and package our food, often times taking it for granted that the public’s health and safety interests will outweigh individual and corporate greed,” said Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “Unfortunately and as alleged in the indictment, these defendants cared less about the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding food safety. This investigation was complex and extensive, and I credit the cooperation of our federal agencies with not only making sure that the cause of this outbreak was uncovered and the people responsible called to account, but also with working hard every day to make sure that parents across the country can feel confident that the food they are feeding their children is safe.”
The charging documents allege that the four defendants participated in several schemes by which they defrauded PCA customers about the quality and purity of their peanut products and specifically misled PCA customers about the existence of foodborne pathogens, most notably salmonella, in the peanut products PCA sold to them. As the charging documents allege, the members of the conspiracy did so in several ways – for example, even when laboratory testing revealed the presence of salmonella in peanut products from the plant, the four defendants failed to notify customers of the presence of salmonella in the products shipped to them.
In addition, the charging documents allege that the four defendants participated in a scheme to fabricate certificates of analysis (COAs) accompanying various shipments of peanut products. COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens. As alleged in the charging documents, on several occasions these four defendants participated in a scheme to fabricate COAs stating that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella.
After the salmonella outbreak that gave rise to this investigation, FDA inspectors visited the plant several times in January 2009. According to the indictment, the inspectors asked specific questions about the plant, its operations, and its history, and, in several instances, the four defendants gave untrue or misleading answers to these questions.
“The charges announced today show that if an individual violates food safety rules or conceals relevant information, we will seek to hold them accountable,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The health of our families and the safety of our food system are too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company.”
See the DOJ Announcement
See also Medical Law Perspectives, July 2012 Report: Foodborne Illness: When Grabbing a Bite Can Be Deadly.